Shibam Restaurant

Mayfair’s Shibam Restaurant is an Oasis for Near-East and Middle-East Chicago

The Yemeni city of Shibam is called the Chicago of the Desert, a reference to its impressive skyline of mud brick skyscrapers. Shibam rises as a metropolitan oasis on the Southern Arabian plateau, where it was once an important way station for caravans of spice traders, who left their mark on Yemeni cuisine.

Located on a busy corner of Chicago’s northside Mayfair neighborhood, Shibam Restaurant is an oasis all its own, a place where Persian Gulf emigres can find those Spice Route flavors of cumin and coriander, turmeric and ginger, fenugreek and aniseed blended into soups and stews and rice dishes that simply taste like home. (A sister restaurant, Shibaum South, just opened in Bridgeview.)

Of course, there are countless Chicago restaurants that sell more well-known, often times Americanized Middle East staples like falafel, shawarma, and hummus, said Reyad Ajour, the manager of Shibam, who is from the Giza area of Palestine. But there is no other restaurant in the city serving the slow-simmering and instantly addictive fahsa curry, served in a bubbling clay pot or agda, a hearty vegetable and meat stew whose grandmotherly warmth settles around you like a hug. I’ve loved Middle Eastern food since high school and I’ve lived in Chicago for 10 years. I cry for all the lost meals.

Its food is a product of Ottoman influences from the north and Indian influences to the south, Ajour explains, taking me on a tour of the lavish spread of foods that have begun to appear on the table of our large, plush booth. The dishes move from the pickup window to our table at an alarming pace.

The centerpiece, the dish ordered more than any other here, is mandi lamb, slow-simmered on the bone and served atop fragrant and colorful basmati rice. A butterflied Whole Greek fish arrives next, painted in a crimson sauce more fiery in color than flavor and perfectly broiled, with crispy edges and a moist interior. But is the chicken fahsa I can’t seem to stop eating, dunking my bread repeatedly into the bubbling tomato-onion-and-spice juices in its clay pot. I stare with longing at the golden brown mutapaq pastry, stuffed with chicken moistened with tomatoes, peppers, and cilantro, and manage to stop eating the fahsa long enough to try it. It’s flaky and flavorful and totally worth the carbs.

Yemen is larger than California in area but smaller than Texas and strategically situated in the southwest corner of the Arabian Peninsula. The country has been embroiled in a civil war since 2015, with a host of external actors, including the US, playing roles. As many as 80,000 combatants and civilians are believed to have died since 2016 in Yemen, and the country is facing a desperate humanitarian crisis, with some 20 million reportedly hungry or facing famine.

That’s why for some of its Yemeni patrons, Shibam has become a place to not only share food but to share their stories, and their worries.

As a percentage of Shibam’s clientele, though, Yemenis are in the distinct minority. Some 70 percent of my fellow diners are from India or Pakistan, Reyour tells me. One Indian man I spoke with on the Sunday morning of my second visit said he had just made the 40-minute round trip from Devon Ave., Chicago’s row of Indian and Pakistani restaurants, grocery stores and shops, just so he could pick up lunch from Shibam. The ingredients and the food preparation methods are the same, he tells me, but the spices are different enough, or their combinations novel enough anyway, to make eating it feel like “a change of pace.”

The Zurbian lamb, no doubt, is a clear cousin to biryani; a cucumber yogurt sauce clearly a relative to raita. Both cuisines rely heavily on rice, and hot flatbreads, with Shibam’s version arriving as pizza-size circles perfectly charred and folded into fourths and nestled in a basket. I tear piece after piece of it off, spooning on a housemade medium-hot salsa called sahawegg before adding a morsel of fish or a torn shred of the lamb mandi for a tiny, juicy sandwich.

There are also things on the Shibam menu, like the funugreek redolent stew, fahsa, that make me wish I’d experienced it sooner. Another one is a layered dessert called arika, which has mashed dates and bits of wheat on the bottom and is topped with a layer of butter and a kind of clotted cream, sprinkled with black seeds and drizzled with honey. It’s the perfect dessert to let the diner control the sweetness, which is very mild from the dates mash but can be dialed up with honey as desired.

Shibam’s interior is fast-casual inviting and comfortable, with the tables spaced far enough apart that no one feels crowded. In the basement is another large dining room, with two private, reservable rooms furnished with colorful cushions and poufs for floor seating. In Arabic countries, the midday meal is the largest, and on weekends the restaurant is hopping from lunch late into the night. It serves no alcohol, and it never closes.

Moving to Chicago from the Middle East was a challenge for Ajour, who arrived mid-winter without so much as a coat to get him started. Yemeni cook Majed Gunid, who hails from Ibb, said for him the adjustment to the chilly upper midwest was easier than learning the language or getting the hang of the educational system at the age of 15. For starters, Gunid said, he had been used to spending the full day in the same classroom, with one teacher for all subjects. Suddenly, he was expected to pack up and move every hour on the hour, and not speaking a word of English, he found it hard to ask directions.

For both of them, Shibam has been a source of familiarity and warmth, an oasis in a city that can sometimes register as chilly to outsiders. Gunid said he works there 50-plus hours a week, but on his time off there’s nowhere else he’d rather be.

“Between the people who work here, and who come here and the food,” he said, “this is where I feel the most at home.”

Visit:

SHIBAM RESTAURANT (Chicago North)
4807 N Elston Ave, Chicago, IL 60630
(773) 977-7272

SHIBAM RESTAURANT (Chicago South)
9052 S Harlem Ave, Bridgeview, IL 60455
(708) 599-1112

About the author:

Carrie Miller is a Chicago-based freelance journalist who writes about, food, travel, and culture. Her blog, ExpatCook.com is about cooking American Southern recipes for strangers abroad.

SkyIce Restaurant

My nose is frozen. Blustery winds tell me to turn around, go back into the subway. Passing through the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn on an unforgiving February day, you see Sky Ice and think to yourself, Thai ice cream? How do they do it? Selling ice cream works in the summer, but what about the winters? Well, not only are they doing it, but they’ve been absolutely crushing it for the past eight years. The secret? Follow the warm, spicy aroma and your adventurous spirit inside to find out.

 

Meet the Owners

Sutheera Denprapa and her husband, Jonathan Bayer, are the remarkable owners of SkyIce: Thai Food & Ice Cream. I don’t use the term remarkable lightly. As I sat and spoke with them (for actual hours that seemed like minutes), I began to realize their depth of spirit. Owners of a flourishing 8-year-old business in one of the pickiest neighborhoods in the country, actively involved in their community, constantly challenging flavor norms in their restaurant dishes, and last but not least, the dedicated parents to a 10-year-old.

Note: Each of those things is a full-time occupation on its own! How else can you describe two people who are successfully juggling so many massive endeavors, as anything but remarkable?

Thailand

Both Sutheera and the seedling idea of SkyIce were born in Bangkok, Thailand. She fondly remembers her family home, in the business district of Sathorn all the way at the end of the street. Chickens and goats comfortably wandered around papaya and mango trees in the yard behind her house. Sutheera recounts to me a funny story of playing with the chickens in the morning, only to find out later it was in the pot for dinner. “I just fed them yesterday!” She laughs. Maybe that’s why she believes high quality, natural ingredients are the best for the menu at SkyIce.

She tells me that the city of Bangkok is different now than it was when she grew up: There’s a Four Seasons dominating the view; like many neighborhoods in Bangkok, small homes and beautiful fruit trees have been torn down to make room for large buildings. The air is smoggy and the river behind her home that was once so clear her dad used to jump in it, is now polluted and unsafe to even dip a finger.

Thailand to NYC

Sutheera was 27 when she decided it was time to go exploring. She was on her lunch break from work one day when she decided to go apply for an American visa. She returned to work and reported to her boss that she quit. And so, the adventure began. She came over to the U.S. to study English for a year and then decided to stay.

She nurtured her hunger for design while going to Pratt and eventually starting a small fashion line when she began to revisit a tiny dream from her childhood. “I never thought that I would have a restaurant. But I knew when I was young: Please, my parents, can we own an ice cream shop?” They never acquiesced, but the dream wasn’t forgotten...

Time went on, Sutheera married Jonathan and they had their daughter, Yassy. Sutheera spent many nights, eating pints of chocolate ice cream, endlessly designing, dreaming and wondering: Why doesn’t anyone make Thai Tea flavored ice cream? Durian? Miso? Her love of ice cream combined with her longing for flavors from Thailand and memories of her childhood finally became an undeniable calling. If she was going to get those flavors, she had to make it herself.

The Inspiration

Although SkyIce was conceived in the spirit of ice cream, it must be known that it is a far cry from any old ice cream shop. SkyIce is a fully functional Thai restaurant serving up the works: appetizers, mains, sides, and dessert, of course.

The menu was created to be different. Sutheera and Jonathan recounted feeling that so many of the Thai restaurants opening up were copies of the last. Dishing out the same basic, pale, dimly flavored Pad Thai and soggy pineapple fried rice. New Thai restaurants were starting to resemble fast food: average, quick, forgettable. SkyIce was going to be what Thailand is: colorful, energized, flavors that make you feel something. So once again, they wanted to eat real Thai food and since they couldn’t find it, they had to make it.

The entire menu is inspired by the regions of Thailand. They make “Provincial Thai Home Cooking” because Thai flavor profiles vary depending on which part of Thailand you happen to be in. Northern Thailand features more of the herbaceous cilantro flavors, minced meats, and sticky rice many of us are familiar with, like their “Kang Hung Lay Beef”. The Isan region of Thailand displays more simple, spicy flavors and fermented fish. The popular Somtum (Papaya) Salad is evidence of the simplicity of this region. Southern Thai dishes are generally where we see lots of spice and all of those beautiful rich coconut based curries, to which SkyIce has devoted a whole section of its menu. Finally, there is Central Thailand. The region Sutheera is from. The hub of Thailand, bustling with markets and ingredients from all over the country and imports from China. Dishes like “Grilled Mahi Mahi in Banana Leaf,” “Basil Fried Rice,” and “Pad See Yue” draw their flavors from here.

The Must-Order Food

Massman Curry. One of my favorites that my mother (also from Bangkok) makes, I had high expectations. SkyIce did not disappoint. Creamy coconut milk curry, tangy acidic notes, and just a little spicy on the finish, just the way I remember it. You can pick your protein but I usually go with tofu when it’s offered. It’s just as filling, makes me feel a little bit healthy and it’s usually lighter on my wallet, such was the case here. Potato, onion, broccoli, green beans and peanuts round out the stew and you can choose to have Jasmine Rice or Roti to accompany your delicious Massman. I chose Roti for fun. I could write a whole article on their Roti alone, but I’ll save your Screen Time app from shaming you. The Roti is flaky and layered with happiness, please order it! Even if it’s a side order, because I totally get it if you need your rice.

Pad Thai Woon Sen. For the experimental type, this is different than the Pad Thai you might be familiar with for a couple reasons, but firstly, because the Woon Sen noodle is thin and clear. The next thing you’ll notice is the distinct red-orange color of the noodle. The SkyIce kitchen does something special here, the sauce is tamarind based and very distinct. Running on three main gears of taste: sweet, savory, and acidic, this isn’t the run of the mill, McPadThai over here. This is a highly crafted transformation on a plate. Like most of the mains, you have a number of proteins to choose from ranging from tofu and “mock duck” all the way to mahi mahi or beef sirloin.

SkyIce Palette. You should try every ice cream flavor available. But that’s a lot. Especially if you just ate a giant meal. So to save you from on-the-spot anxiety, or worse, the dreaded “can I taste-” a hundred times, SkyIce has created an easy way for you to take comfort in your indecision. The SkyIce Palette is twelve mini scoops of whichever flavors you choose. This is both exciting and practical for a place churning out over a dozen innovative seasonal specialties.

Here are some of my favorites:

Durian: Funky and Fruity.
Miso Almond: Compact flavor, salty miso complements the almond.
Black Sesame Seaweed: One of their most famous flavors, roasty & nutty.
Raspberry Cilantro: Tangy Raspberry dissolves into a cool Cilantro finish.
Cucumber Sorbet: Fresh and Cleansing.
Honey Ginger: Warm and spicy sweetness.
Belgian Chocolate: Rich and powerful chocolate flavor, packs a punch.
*Fig: Seasonal special, one of the most honest fig flavors you can get.

Achieving Success

So what is the secret to crushing the restaurant game in a competitive neighborhood like Park Slope, Brooklyn? Being adaptable to the food demands of an area? Giving people something they can’t find anywhere else? Sure, those are key pieces of the puzzle. But when I asked Sutheera what advice she would give to another immigrant thinking of owning a business, she thought for half of a second. Her message: “Follow your dreams. Discipline is very important too, and persistence.”

Visit

SkyIce
63 5th Avenue · Brooklyn, NY 11217 718-230-0910
Bergen Street

Atlantic Avenue/Barclays Center

About the Author

Allie is a food and travel blogger and former pastry chef. As a first generation Asian-American, she is constantly inspired to bring cultures together through cuisine. She reviews restaurants and produces short video recipe tutorials on her YouTube channel Thainybites.

Check out Thainybites blog and photography at Thainybites.com
Subscribe for Tutorials and Reviews at Thainybites YouTube Channel
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Bali Kitchen

MEET THE RESTAURATEUR

Jazz Pasay, Owner of Bali Kitchen

Nestled right at the heart of East Village, New York City, is a small and chic Indonesian restaurant. Bali Kitchen, owned by Indonesian immigrant Jazz Pasay, features an industrial chic decor which blends in well with the East Village aesthetic. This neighborhood is unique because the 1960s brought about an influx of musicians, artists, and hippies drawn to low rent prices. Bali Kitchen’s white-painted exposed brick wall and dark wood tabletops contrast with the silvery metal chairs and the stark black exterior. This combination with a glass storefront creates a beautiful setting to eat delicious food.

Bali Kitchen Exterior

Bali Kitchen is only a few blocks away from the iconic New York deli, Katz delicatessen. But not to worry, Bali Kitchen holds its own.

Jazz Pasay, the owner of Bali Kitchen, is a warm and put together individual who is a confluence of Indonesian culture. His passion to share Indonesian food as a vehicle for culture is contagious. He was born in Manado, a city on Sulawesi island but grew up in Surabaya, East Java island spending much time in Bali and eventually moved to the capital city, Jakarta. His menu is inspired by his vibrant and island-hopping style upbringing. Pasay takes the best dish from every city and showcases them in his menu, thereby bringing the best of Indonesia to New York City.

Jazz Pasay, the owner of Bali Kitchen, holding a plate of fake rambutans (an Indonesian fruit)

“I immigrated straight to New York City,” said Pasay. He worked for American, Chinese, Korean and Japanese restaurants before ultimately opening Bali Kitchen.

Pasay opened this restaurant in September of 2017 with the mission of sharing Indonesian culture to New Yorkers. New York City is already well known for its ethnic diversity and charming multicultural society, so introducing Indonesian food and culture is another great addition to this already breathtaking city.

Pasay’s mother owned a small catering business in Jakarta where he was introduced to the importance food plays in shaping identity and forging relationships among people. While Pasay helped his mother in the kitchen occasionally, he still owns a fashion business in Jakarta that has been operating for the last 20 years called Jazz Pasay & SAMAR costume & beyond.

Head Chef, David Silva Perez, cooking in the kitchen of Bali Kitchen

Pasay gets his aromatics, spices, and ingredients from an Indonesian grocery store in Chinatown as well as from Amherst, Queens. According to Pasay, there is a large and thriving Indonesian community in Queens and supermarkets with imported Indonesian goods are abundant in the area.

Interior of Bali Kitchen.

Pasay’s genuine need to share his culture comes through when asked about his clientele. He knows them very well, already categorizing the restaurant eaters into three groups. His familiarity with who eats at his restaurant reflects his passion to share his culture to both those who don’t know it and those already familiar with it. He explains the first group are local New Yorkers who live in East Village. Second come New Yorkers who have, according to Pasay, “certain connection to Indonesia, either they have been to Indonesia or they have family members or friends who are Indonesian”. And thirdly, are Indonesian tourists who need some taste of home after traveling to the States.

BEING GAY IN INDONESIA

Pasay immigrated in 2012 through his husband. Pasay said, “Gay marriage over there [in Indonesia] is very illegal so I just moved here [New York City].” Pasay married his husband in June 2012 while in the process of applying for gay asylum, he said, “Lucky us, before submitting the file, the US federal government legalized same-sex marriage in June 2013.”

The Indonesian LGBT community is subject to discrimination and hate crimes. Indonesia is a Muslim majority country and religion is very closely tied with politics, thereby affecting public policy. Religious norms hold strong beliefs that make it dangerous for Indonesians to express their sexuality and many face threats to their lives, such as flogging punishments in Aceh. Same-sex marriage is not recognized and same-sex couples are not protected under the eyes of the law. Recently, the political climate is increasingly hostile as sharia-supporting terrorist fundamentalist Muslim groups have gained more support.

OBSTACLES FACED IN AMERICA

Pasay talks about the hardships he faced with opening a restaurant in America. For instance, Indonesian cuisine may simply be too exotic and therefore practically unheard of to many Americans. This lack of exposure is a significant barrier to bringing customers to his restaurant. Pasay said, “Not many people are familiar with Indonesian food so it’s hard for them to instantly get drawn to it.”

Further, there was a difference in workplace dynamics that needed to get some getting used to; such as the relationship between employer and employee is more hierarchical back in Indonesia. Pasay said, “It’s just harder to manage people because this is America and it’s not like in Indonesia where you can just ask people to do things. Here it’s a different dynamic.”

Pasay also mentions health regulations as an unexpected obstacle. Pasay said, “In Indonesia, you serve food at room temperature and it’s okay. But here everything has to be hot and cooked right away. If you leave the food out for a long time the health department would give us sanctions.” What makes it difficult, according to Pasay, “our food has different varieties [of cooking methods]: one is baked, grilled, fried, steamed and so you really have to be able to manage the time.”

THE CUISINE

Indonesia is home to over 300 ethnic groups and this presents a uniquely diverse and incredibly wide range of dishes. Indonesia is a large exporter of spices which leads to crazy flavor combinations in their food. From his menu, Pasay recommends Nasi Campur Bali, Rendang, and Nasi Goreng. He said, “Those three are very popular.”

Bali Kitchen’s food is authentic and traditional, with hardly any American influence. According to Pasay, the taste may seem diluted to some people “because of the spice itself. We [him and his chefs] cannot get the fresh one so we’re subjected with the dried ones so as a result, it’s not really rich like in Indonesia. But in terms of authenticity, we employ/add the whole thing according to the traditional authentic recipe.”

Bali Kitchen Menu

My first visit I decided to order the house special Nasi Campur Bali, which literally translates to Rice Mix Bali. This dish is incredibly complex with nine different toppings (yes, nine) on top of rice plated over banana leaves served with a side of extra hot chili paste. Nasi Campur Bali acts much like a microcosm of Indonesian cultural identity- separate components that all come beautifully together in a delicious dish. Nasi Campur Bali includes chicken marinated in a combination of Indonesian herbs topped with grated coconut flakes, peanuts, egg topped with chilli sauce, tempeh (fried fermented soybean), green beans, fried shallots, krupuk (deep fried cracker), sate lilit (chicken skewer marinated in Indonesian herbs) and some battered and fried miscellaneous vegetables. If you like your food sweet, I definitely recommend topping it off with the in house sweet soy sauce called kecap manis that they provide on the countertop next to the cutlery.

Going clockwise: Jamu drink, chilli sauce, krupuk and Nasi Campur Bali (House Special dish).

For the accompanying beverage, Bali Kitchen has a wide range to choose from, including but not limited to durian juice, coconut water, iced lychee or rambutan, and sweetened iced teas (famously teh botol and teh kotak). I chose the traditional Indonesian drink, Jamu which is a blend of turmeric, tamarind, black pepper, and yacon syrup. The thin, dark orangey liquid was surprisingly pleasant despite the unconventional mix of ingredients and perfectly complements the main course because it cuts right through the intense spiciness of the added chili. Traditionally, Jamu is a medicinal drink but here it takes on a milder taste, while still staying true to the health benefits of its original inspiration.

My second visit I ordered Nasi Goreng Kampung, fried rice with dried fish and shrimp paste. This dish is topped with eight toppings: sliced cucumbers, sliced tomatoes, shrimp crackers, pickled vegetables, fried onions, fried egg, dried fish and dried shrimp. Nasi Goreng Kampung is a staple, everyday food for Indonesians and has an incredibly strong flavor profile that can only be achieved using a variety of spices.

Nasi Goreng Kampung

Bali Kitchen doubles not only as a restaurant but a catering service- with a secret menu. Pasay mentions that with the cold New York winter season, offices and private events order food for large groups. They famously prepare Nasi Tumpeng, an elaborate and colorful feast centered around yellow, aromatic infused rice shaped in an inverted cone. Pasay smiles when he mentions that those who call for this service are almost always Indonesians because they are familiar with what they want and ask him to prepare special orders like terasi and ikan asin which are sometimes unfeasible to cook in the small restaurant kitchen. But don’t be intimidated, Pasay is very friendly and is willing to cater to newcomers who have no idea that they would be in for such a treat!

Nasi Tumpeng catering order. Image courtesy of Bali Kitchen.

Nasi Tumpeng is an extremely significant dish to Indonesian cultural and historical identity. It dates far back to ancient Indonesian tradition that revered mountains as spirits. Read more about the symbolic and philosophical meanings and the complex beliefs about Nasi Tumpeng in this article.

SITUATION NOW IN INDONESIA

Indonesia was hit particularly bad throughout 2018 by a series of earthquakes and tsunamis that caused numerous casualties namely in the regions of Java, Sumatra, Lombok, and Sulawesi. The worst of which struck Sulawesi last September which killed over 2,000 people. Despite Indonesia’s unfortunate familiarity with earthquakes and tsunamis, there is a lack of infrastructure available to prevent high casualties. Death and injuries could have been mitigated or avoided but instead, the government failed to maintain warning systems that would have saved many lives.

CNN covered an article about what went wrong with Indonesia’s early tsunami warning system, which highlights the country’s failure to warn its citizens due to “vandalism, limited budget, and technical damage to tsunami buoys”, according to Supoto Purwo Nugroho, a spokesman for Indonesia’s National Board for Disaster Management.

Despite the natural disasters that occur seemingly frequently in the area and questionable human rights issues, Indonesia remains a fascinating place to visit. To get a small taste of that Indonesian spirit, visit Bali Kitchen, right here in the Big Apple. You won't be sorry.

 

Visit:
Bali Kitchen
128 E 4th Street • New York, NY 10003
646.678.4784
Hours: Everyday from 11 a.m. - 10 p.m.

About the Author

Isabel is an adventurous eater and will happily go out of her culinary comfort zone. She’s constantly obsessed with finding her new favorite food and trying the craziest foods. As an avid traveler, she believes food is the perfect way to bridge the gaps between people of different cultures.

Mahope Restaurant

“Ma’s Hope”- Cambodian Restaurant

Location:

Mahope is located in the North Side, Cincinnati. Northside is on the west side of town and is known for their historic, yet eclectic nature. In a sea of eccentric buildings, Mahope stands out with its bright blue exterior.

Meet The Owners:

Vy Sok is the owner of Mahope along with her husband and business partner, Mike. Vy was originally born in Thailand after her family fled from Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge genocide. In 1984, Vy and her family moved to America, where Vy eventually realized her dream of opening her own restaurant. Vy fantasized of having her own family recipes on a menu of her own. As a young girl, Vy’s mother was hopeful she would turn her dreams into reality. This inspired a name for the restaurant. The direct translation of “Mahope” in Cambodian is “food”, but the English translation “Ma’s Hope” was perfectly fitting for what Vy and her mother had envisioned years ago. Pursuing her passion, Vy completed the Mortar program in Cincinnati, Ohio, a program supporting young urban entrepreneurs. In 2017, she opened a Mahope food truck at Urban Artifact, a food, craft beer, and music event in downtown Cincinnati. In 2018, Mahope was at Cincinnati’s Taco Fest, where Vy received an award for her  now famous “cheesecake taco” (see below). Transitioning from a pop-up patio at a restaurant in downtown Cincinnati, Mahope finally found its home in North Side.

The Food:

I asked Vy to describe traditional Cambodian food in three words and she said: “savory”, “earthy” and “fresh”. Cambodian food is traditionally cooked with a lot of herbs and fresh ingredients including lots of lemongrass, turmeric, kaffir lime and cilantro! Mahope is sensitive to different types of eating styles. For example, there is no fish sauce included in any of the recipes (although it can be added on the side) to cater to vegetarians and because the recipes are made with vegetables and rice noodles, most of the items on the menu are also gluten-free. In addition, a Cambodian classic, pickled papaya is also included in many of the recipes!

To begin, I started with the Ban Chao Roll which consists of cabbage, onion, scallions, ground pork & cilantro rolled in rice flour crepes served with Sweet & Sour vinaigrette with roasted peanuts. A crunchy, fresh and flavorful appetizer!

Next, I had the Bone Broth Kathiew with shrimp, a Cambodian soup with rice noodles is garnished with cabbage, cilantro, and lime with rice noodles. This soup, similar to Vietnamese pho, is a perfect combination of earthy and savory in flavor and soft and crunchy in texture.

The Cambodian Chicken Taco is a Cambodian twist to tacos. When I asked Vy if there was a challenge integrating Cambodian cuisine to the Cincinnati culture, she replied in the affirmative, but mentioned how the chicken tacos at Mahope are a good stepping stone for someone who may have never tried Cambodian food. The tacos consist of grilled and marinated chicken, cabbage, pickled papaya, sriracha aioli and cilantro served on a grilled corn tortilla. The chicken was perfectly marinated and moist, with the pickled papaya adding a Cambodian touch to a Mexican classic.

The cheesecake taco referred to previously features homemade cheesecake within a Sopapilla taco shell, topped with fresh strawberries, whipped cream, chocolate sauce, and some more cheesecake. Not Cambodian, per se,  but a perfect dessert to an excellent meal nonetheless!

The Experience:

Mahope is a family friendly restaurant that offers an excellent eating experience for those curious about Cambodian cuisine.  It is a spotlessly clean restaurant, with a large Buddha that greets you at the entrance, along with the aroma of delicious South-east Asian spices. I can’t wait to go back and highly recommend to anyone in the Cincinnati area.

Visit: 

Mahope
3935 Spring Grove Ave,
Cincinnati, OH 45223
513-499-7176

Hannah Thornsburg is a Cincinnati local with a creative palate and a passion for food. As a young professional, she loves to try different cuisines around town!

Ha La Sushi Restaurant

Hidden behind a bundle of trees in a small shopping plaza in Alamo, California,  Ha-La Sushi buzzes with frenetic energy. As the regulars pile in, they are greeted with a beaming smile by an amiable, middle age man with a fun, spiky haircut. Hugging regular patrons, Ken Ma- the owner of the restaurant, always seems to remember everyone’s name, as well as what was going on in their lives. Customers seem genuinely happy to see him and the other employees of Ha-La Sushi.

Ken Ma makes sure to treat everyone who comes to Ha-La Sushi, along with his employees, as a family. It’s no wonder that most of his employees never want to leave and still work with him after many years. He accepts and values people as they are, and sympathizes with challenges - his life after immigrating to the US has taught him not to take anything or anyone for granted.

In 1996, Ken moved to the United States from Hong Kong, right before the sovereignty over Hong Kong transferred from the United Kingdom to China. This handover marked the end of the British Empire rule, along with significant trepidation in the hearts of citizens of Hong Kong regarding their future. The major fear was that Chinese culture of control and corruption would undermine Hong Kong’s economic development and free political expression.

Ken’s life flipped upside down as he left his country a prosperous businessman and came into the United States as a nobody. Instead of managing a business, Ken found himself behind a kitchen sink in a restaurant, washing dishes. While not ideal, this 2-year stint gave him the opportunity to learn the fundamentals of running a business in the United States.  From dishwasher to the waiter, to sushi helper, and finally to becoming a sushi master chef - Ken paved the way to his success by working 2 jobs with no days off for several years until he had enough money saved for a down payment on opening his own restaurant.

As Ken began to look for his own place to develop a restaurant, a major setback came crashing down on him - the loss of all the family savings. He found himself back at square one, the shining ‘end of the tunnel’ to his dream even further away. The consequences that followed had Ken battling with depression and despair - he had worked 60 hours per week for 7 years with no breaks saving every penny he was given - only to have it all vanish right in front of him.

Yet, Ken rose from the ashes once again and started his long, laboring trek by asking his family and friends to help him in finance the down payment. Because of his trustworthiness and work ethic, everyone reached out to help and Ken was soon able to open his first ever sushi restaurant in Benicia, CA  in 2003. Word about Ken’s wonderful food got around quickly wonderful food and his business grew despite being in what many would consider a “sketchy” or “unsafe” locations. Even non-local customers would come from across the bridge just to eat at Ken’s sushi restaurant.

Things started looking up as his business grew. Shortly after his restaurant opened, Ken bought his first house, got remarried and had a son. But even with his success, he never relaxed and kept working around the clock- a new idea of owning a restaurant across the bridge in the East Bay hovered in his mind.

A developer who visited and immediately fell in love with Ken’s sushi place searched him out and offered a new location in Alamo. Ken opened Ha-La Sushi in 2005. Currently, Ken owns 2 restaurants: one in San Leandro and the other in Alamo, managing his time between the two places. He is diligent, hard-working, and never takes anything or anyone for granted. He always appreciates the people in his life, his employees, and most importantly, his family. When you come to Ha-La Sushi, you are treated not just as a customer, but as a friend too.

Ha-La is an Asian fusion, a sushi restaurant that combines Japanese and Chinese cuisine. Ask the owner for a recommendation, and you will be in for a special treat. Ken might ask you when you come in: “What do you feel like?”, and somehow makes any desire happen. Anything from oysters, and extra special Toro, to rolls and udon, and of course, Ken's famous lamb chops - will make you happily satisfied.

Since we were at the restaurant in Alamo, we had to order the Alamo Roll. This roll has deep fried shrimp & crab on the inside, tuna & salmon on the outside, and it is completed with tobiko & spicy sauce on top.

Pork Katsu- breaded pork cutlets, is a comfort-food in Japan. Ha-La sushi is able to make these cutlets especially delicious by ensuring that the pork was filled with juicy flavor and the coated bread crumbs had just the right crunch.

Tempura Vegetables. Tempura is a Japanese dish filled with battered and deep-fried vegetables. At Ha-La, tempura tastes clean, fresh, and delicate. The coating was extra crisp, lacy and feather light.

Salmon Sashimi - The secret in Ken’s exceptional quality of food lies in his long-established relationships with produce supplies. While also being treated as one of Ken’s good friends, they are expected to deliver only the best and freshest fish. Although basic, the Salmon sashimi we ordered melted in our mouths and still lingered long after devouring it. If you are adventurous and open to trying new food, ask Ken for the Special Fish of the day and follow the question up by asking him if he has Toro. If he does, you are in luck. Toro is a term for the fatty part of the tuna, found in the belly portion of the fish. It is more expensive due to their relative scarcity, but worth the experience.

The Super Lion King Roll was a creamy, mouthwatering treat for my brother, who is a California roll fanatic. The Lion King rolls is essentially a California roll with the exception of being wrapped in salmon and also baked and topped with Ha-La’s special sauce. The crunchy decorations were a wonderful touch in tying the roll together.

The Caterpillar Roll at Ha-La Sushi was very carefully crafted. With unagi and crab meat on the inside, wrapped in fresh avocado, the roll looked like a beautiful caterpillar creation. We learned that Caterpillar rolls were completely an “American” invention, so it is unlikely to be found in Hong Kong or Japan. The Unagi inside the roll was grilled to perfection - crisp and coated with a sweet sauce on the outside while being tender on the inside. Ken told us that unagi is very good for one’s health: high in omega-3 helps to improve blood pressure, lower cholesterol and reduce the risks of diabetes and arthritis.

In my opinion, HaLa sushi embraces what I consider to be a truly international restaurant. A chef serving cuisine they did not grow up with in pursuit of the American Dream.

Visit:
Ha La Sushi
115-C Alamo Plaza
Alamo, CA 94507
(925) 838-5583

Yara Elian is a 10th grader at Northgate High in the San Francisco Bay Area, who loves languages, cultures, food, and writing.